How to Use Stress to Your Advantage

I need a drink because I just want to relax. I’m so stressed.


That’s the number one reason clients tell me they want to drink.


I often thought of coming home and having a glass of wine as my time to relax—my reward for a stressful day.


It turns out there are positive aspects of stress you can tap into simply by shifting the way you think.


There are three types of stress response: threat or challenge, tend and befriend, and growth.


1. Threat or challenge is the fight or flight response.


You see a tiger, would-be mugger, or someone cutting into your parking spot, and you get a surge of the hormone cortisol.


Your heart beats faster. Your breath quickens. You may sweat. Your stomach may churn. You may have the impulse to flee or attack. Your blood vessels constrict, which is associated with heart disease.


Let’s say you’re invited to an impromptu gathering for drinks but already told yourself you wouldn’t have any alcohol tonight. It’s the first time you’ve gotten together with these friends since deciding to cut back and you’re worried they’ll give you a hard time.


If you think about this situation as worrisome and negative, you increase your anxiety, adding to your stress. Maybe causing you to want to drink even more.


The good part about flight or flight is your body getting ready to do something. To rise to the occasion. To meet a challenge. To focus and execute. It helps us perform well on a test or presentation, or solve a problem.


One study showed women who stand in the super woman pose—hands on hips, feet spread apart—prior to an interview, performed better, were perceived better and were more likely to get the job.


It would be interesting to try this stance before going into a challenging situation where we’d normally overdrink but had decided to limit our alcohol.


If you connect the fast heartrate and panicky feeling with your body’s way of getting you ready to meet the challenge, you can remind yourself it’s biology’s way of helping you prepare and focus.


You can use nervous energy to anticipate having the urge to drink at the party and plan how you’ll handle it.


2. The second type of stress response involves release of oxytocin, the feel-good cuddle hormone.


It gets us primed to care for and connect with others.


We see this when communities come together after a disaster, or when those in recovery go to a 12-step meeting with sponsors.


Some studies show how long you live is directly related to your amount of social connection, possibly due to oxytocin.


Increasing social support can have a positive impact on quality of life and our ability to deal with trials while sober.


If you’ve decided not to drink at an event, you might utilize this advantage by sharing with your friends your reason for cutting back and asking for their support.


3. The third stress response is growth.


Stress primes and pushes us to learn.


I had a client who wanted to stop overdrinking because when she drank too much, she snored and her husband started sleeping in the guestroom. Also, he was older and she was worried if she was out cold from drinking, she might not be available if he needed her to drive him to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Her worry and anxiety prompted her to seek me out for overdrinking coaching. She loved her husband and was motivated more for him than for herself. This drove her to seek help and learn new strategies.


You might think of an evening without alcohol as a growth opportunity and the chance to practice being in the moment while being present. In this way, you focus on long-term benefits and acquiring new skills.


The next time you’re feeling stressed, look for ways to focus on positive aspects of stress. Rise to the challenge, get support and find solutions.    


It’s your advantage.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst